STEM Is the Key to Stronger Education

Technology and engineering, both critical dimensions of our global economy and society, require mastery in science and advanced math.

The good news: STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) occupations are expected to grow 17 percent in 2008-2018, versus 9.8 percent for non-STEM jobs, and earn 26 percent higher wages.

The bad news: An estimated 3 million STEM-related jobs remain unfilled because of learning and skills gaps.

The U.S. Defense Department has even identified the growing shortage of American engineers as a crisis that threatens our national security.

In the U.S., education reform efforts of the past 30 years, focused largely on reading and basic math, have mostly ignored science and such advanced math topics as algebra, geometry and calculus. Furthermore, the middle and high schools overlook many students' latent talent in these areas.

While a seventh-grade algebra whiz, for example, would probably be steered into advanced high school math, physics and chemistry, struggling classmates would be ushered into a less challenging sequence. Once on the wrong path, affected kids don't see the way up, and learning loses excitement, meaning and relevance.

Moreover, outdated, lecture-style STEM instruction that teaches to the test and relies on textbooks, abstracts and theoretical scenarios constricts curiosity and aptitude, stunts STEM engagement and achievement, and further goads at-risk kids' desire to drop out of school.

As for those who stay in school, most flock to non-STEM tracks because these subjects turned them off at an early age. To prepare students for the workforce or higher education, schools must better advance STEM interest and mastery.

To start, education-reform specialists should overhaul the restrictive chutes-and-ladders approach to science and math that begins in sixth or seventh grade, amend outmoded STEM teaching methods, and instead champion an interactive, real-world, mentor-based approach.

Innovative examples of this proven strategy abound. Blackstone Valley Regional Vocational Technical High School, in Upton, Mass., for instance, which has a 93 percent graduation rate, reinvented itself in the past 10 years to help its students pursue rewarding STEM careers. In addition to plumbing, automotive and other traditional trades (which increasingly rely on technological advances), BVT offers rigorous training in emerging technologies, advanced STEM curriculum and even an engineering capstone class for seniors.

Education reformers would do well to study BVT's model of success and emphasize vocational education as a means to hands-on STEM mastery.

In addition, many organizations, science and natural history museums, zoos and aquariums nationwide offer first-class STEM immersion programs that can be integrated into school curriculum.

The Jason Project, for example, reaches more than 2 million K-12 grade students in all 50 states and 170 countries worldwide, linking kids with top scientists who inspire excitement for STEM via live interactive events and tele-technology. (The Jason Project's name derives from Jason and the Argonauts, in Greek mythology.)

Jason's curricula programs -- ecology, energy, forces and motion, geology and weather -- are aligned to state, national and international standards, and its website gives kids and teachers free online access to hands-on lesson plans, research, sophisticated learning games, videos, communities and more.

In a survey, 73 percent of responding teachers believe that their students show higher achievement in Jason units versus non-Jason units, and almost 90 percent report higher student enthusiasm for science with Jason. The teachers also say that Jason curricula offer remediation for struggling pupils and enrichment for more able students in the same classroom -- affirmation indeed for rethinking STEM teaching principles.

The new academic year is upon us and children across the nation -- our future leaders, teachers, parents, entrepreneurs, inventors and health care providers are making their way back to class.

Many students will thrive upon the stimulating challenges they find at their schools, fueled by innovative programs that inspire STEM passion and achievement.

However, all American children deserve this opportunity, not just those who demonstrate an early aptitude or who are fortunate to attend such forward-looking schools. Solutions are at hand, now we must act.

For our nation to flourish in the world economy we must foster STEM interest and mastery in every school, every year, beginning today.

This post originally appeared in the Providence Journal.

Stephen M. Coan is president and chief executive of the Sea Research Foundation Inc., in Mystic.